Share this article

print logo


From her perch high above the mezzanine of Shea's Performing Arts Center, Donna White enjoys a commanding view of Main Street, 40 feet below, and the Market Arcade on the opposite curb.

Or would, if she'd just shift around on her scaffold and gaze through the massive window above the landmark theater's main entrance.

But you're unlikely to find this volunteer daydreaming. She's intent on the job at hand -- restoring a large ornamental cabochon on the lounge's north wall. It's slow, intricate work that requires her to bend forward from a sitting or kneeling position, peer closely at the surface of the jewel-like oval, and apply, stroke by short stroke, the reddish-gold that was part of Louis Comfort Tiffany's original color scheme.

The new stage house at the rear of the theater has been fully functional since last spring, allowing Shea's to mount blockbuster Broadway shows like "Beauty and the Beast," which opens Tuesday. Now the focus of the theater's $30 million rehabilitation has shifted to the painstaking restoration of the lobby and 3,000-seat auditorium.

The next big step, beginning this spring and ending in the fall, will be the complete reconstruction of the rear wall along Pearl Street. Everything from bricks to terra cotta tiles to fire escapes will be replaced.

The wall will be reconstructed with $2 million in state seed money held by the city. The Shea's board is developing a plan to raise the balance of the project cost -- roughly $13 million -- said Shea's President Patrick Fagan.

For the small army of volunteers working to bring the rich ornamentation back to life, progress is measured in weeks and inches.

White, who came to Shea's by way of AmeriCorps-VISTA, the national community service program, is among about 20 people donating time and energy to the task of returning the great Main Street showplace to its vaudevillian glory.

Without them, the project would be behind schedule and far costlier, said Doris Collins, who directs the restoration effort and is the only salaried member of the group.

She estimated that the group is saving the nonprofit performing arts center $3.5 million to $4 million in labor costs alone.

They're a diverse bunch.

White, for example, is working with two agendas in mind. She is using her time on the project to develop a reading program, coloring book, word puzzle and video about restoration for schoolchildren in kindergarten through third grade.

Standing below the scaffold, Dr. Richard Wakefield, a retired internist, wraps up a few hours work on the lounge wall. He'd probably stay longer if he weren't feeling under the weather at the moment.

A few people even come in to perform court-ordered community service -- and not always grudgingly. One young man eagerly scaled the scaffolding and ladders required to work in the theater's upper reaches, Collins said.

The core of volunteers and conscripts is often reinforced by the Shea's family.

For example, members of Rising Stars, a young professionals support group, have shown up for painting parties. Board members have been known to pitch in as well. William Crooker, a Shea's director and president of the Spotlight Committee, an organization of major donors, wields a mean handsaw, Collins said.

To appreciate the challenge facing the volunteers, consider the area White is glazing as her legs dangle from a plank on scaffolding 20 feet above the Members Lounge.

The Tiffany color scheme specified "rich shades of baroque, palatial tones -- golds, reds and turquoises" throughout the public areas, Collins said.

But until now, the original colors have been obscured by a decades-long buildup of soot and -- in the front lobby -- bleaching caused by intense sunlight streaming through the 35-foot-high window.

The corner where White toils had the added problem of an updraft that deposited a heavy residue from cigarette smoke.

Through most of Shea's 75-year history, grime-creep was ignored, or simply covered. At one point, the wall was painted dark brown to match the dirt.

Like all restorations, the project started with "a lot of preparation, a lot of research" and a thorough cleansing, said Collins, who oversaw the interior restoration of Our Lady of Victory Basilica in Lackawanna before starting at Shea's in 1997.

The process got a helpful boost from the publication of Tiffany's original Shea's Buffalo Theater interior design sketch by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art during the summer of 1998. Until then, Shea's officials were unaware of Tiffany's hand in the design, which is credited mostly to Chicago architects Cornelius and George Rapp.

Replicating the original colors, for which no formulas existed, was a different matter. It involved mixing oils of various hues and letting them cure until a particular combination clicked.

The process has been made easier by the fact the same colors were employed throughout the vast building, Collins said.

The project also involves repairing, or replacing, original plaster moldings, marble, faux marble and theater curtains.

Whatever volunteer muscle cannot accomplish, such as rebuilding the rear wall, rewiring and installing new plumbing in the house, will be done by contractors experienced in structural renovation.

"Realistically, it's going to take another five to seven years to finish everything," Fagan said.

Collins' dedicated band certainly has plenty more to do.

Restoration of the ornamental decoration will move inward from the front of the lobby, "so there will be a natural flow into the main house," she said.

Don't expect an overnight transformation.

"There's enough to keep us busy for three or four more years," Collins said.

There are no comments - be the first to comment